Monday, March 31, 2014

Water Subsides Are a Drain on California and on Economies in General

California has been dealing with drought for quite some time. I'm not going to go as far and say that it hasn't been this bad since the Great Depression, but it's still bad. The water situation in the country is bad enough where the population has doubled, yet the water consumption has tripled. There are those on the Left who would like to blame the drought on climate change because obviously, any climatological phenomenon is caused by our carbon output, right? Although record low rainfalls are not helping, you know what is making it worse? Ill-informed government policies, specifically in the form of water and irrigation subsidies.

The United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) oversees water management, particularly in the West. Even thought the USBR has multiple reclamation projects, it can be summarized by saying that the USBR sells water to farmers for a fraction of the cost. In economic terms, this subsidy is artificially depressing water prices (see below).

It wouldn't be the first time that subsidies caused unintended consequences (see here, here, and here). Unsurprisingly, these subsidies create a deadweight loss. More importantly, by keeping prices low, it increases the quantity of the water consumed, which leads to shortages. The underpricing, which does not factor in the real-life costs of storing, pumping, and diverting water via dams, leads to inefficient usage and overuse, which is unfortunate considering how rare of a commodity water is. These subsidies also harm developing countries. Developing countries are more reliant on their agricultural output than developed countries. By distorting the markets to make American agricultural goods artificially cheap, developing countries lose out on agricultural output that a more liberalized market would have offered, which makes it more difficult for developing countries to climb out of poverty. This is not mere theoretical griping. In addition to California, this is also adversely affecting places such as Egypt, India, and Las Vegas.

One can argue for better-targeted subsidies, which I'm sure some would, but I feel more than my fair share of skepticism of allowing for a water allocation system that is based on political whims, not on who needs the water the most. Instead of having the government subsidize and allocate water, let's create water markets. With a water market, we can remove distortions so this rare resource can be used more efficiently, we can conserve a rare resource, and we can make water rights well-defined, enforceable, and transferable because market prices are a successful mechanism to determine supply and demand of resources. Although there is some government regulation, allowing water markets in such places as Chile and Australia works (Grafton et al, 2010).

Proponents of these subsidies would argue that agricultural markets would take a hit. So what if food prices go up a bit? Those prices should not have been that low in the first place. It does not do much good if the subsidies deplete the water while lining the pockets of Big Agriculture. If you're worried about low-income households, provide tax credits, but let's not throw more money at the problem thinking that will help because that's how California got itself in this mess in the first place. Are water markets the silver bullet to California's water woes? A silver bullet in public policy is more theory than anything else. Nevertheless, water markets can be the mechanism implemented in concert with other policy alternatives to mitigate California's water shortage.

4-8-2015: The people over at Vox wrote a good piece on water markets. Also, the Public Policy Institute of California put out a policy analysis on the drought of California, which includes policy alternatives, including strengthened water markets.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Parsha Tazria: Doing More Than Paying Lip Service to Opposing Lashon Hara

"The pen is mightier than the sword." This cliché exists for a reason: words have power. This is why Judaism realizes the importance of words, hence the emphasis on speech ethics. This emphasis also play a role in this week's Torah portion. Much of this week's portion discusses צרעת, which is commonly translated as "leprosy." Jewish tradition teaches that this leprosy is brought about by לשון הרע (lashon hara; literally meaning "evil tongue," refers to gossip and other forms of bad speech ethics). This lesion makes an appearance in a later Torah portion when Miriam speaks against her brother (Numbers 12), as well as when Moses spoke lashon hara about himself (Exodus 4:6). In the former appearance, Moses singles it out as the single most important lesson for the next generation to learn (Deuteronomy 24:8-9).

In spite of what Moses heeded, Jewish religious establishments, particularly Orthodox ones, put more emphasis on keeping kosher and Shabbat. Why? For one, it's easier to keep kosher and Shabbat, especially when you're in a community that observes it. Second, it's easier to regulate kashrut and Shabbat than it is what comes out of one's mouth. Even so, I wish that observant Jews were as meticulous about avoiding lashon hara as they were about keeping kosher or Shabbat. And it's not limited to Orthodoxy. I don't see non-Orthodox movements actively campaigning against lashon hara as a form of tikkun olam. Why am I so gung-ho about the idea of cracking down on lashon hara?

Looking at the description of צרעת in this week's Torah portion can help give us a foundation for my ardor. I found three facets of the description of צרעת of particular interest.

The first is that one's clothes are torn (בגדיו יהיו פרמים; Leviticus 13:45). I found this to be interesting because the tearing of one's clothing (קריעה) is done as a sign of mourning of a loved one. When we speak lashon hara, what should we be mourning? Judaism considers lashon hara to be akin to murder because just as blood is drained in murder, so is the blood drained from one's face when embarrassed in public (Bava Metzia 59a). Gossip is actually a triple murder threat because it harms the person who speaks it, the person about whom it is spoken, and the person who hears it. The Jerusalem Talmud (Peah 1:1) likens lashon hara to an arrow because it can slay those from afar, as well those who are near.

The second facet is that the leper has to call out "impure" (טמא!) to those around him (Leviticus 13:45). One thought is that the outcry is a plea to elicit compassion and prayers on one's behalf (Talmud, Mo'ed Katan 5a). In a similar vein, this outcry can be a  projection of one's failures (Talmud, Kiddushin 70a). In order to get help, the first step is to admit it. The fact that a commandment to do so is implied makes us realize just how difficult it can be to admit our problems. When we verbalize them, it brings us closer to recovery.

The third sign is that when one has the lesion, one has to isolate themselves from the rest of the community (Leviticus 13:46). This is to remind us that when we speak badly, our words disconnect ourselves from others. Speaking badly about other erodes trust in others, which causes distance from those who habitually speak lashon hara. Why is lashon hara so distancing, I mean, aside from the fact it causes harm? When an individual steals or murders, the motive is to typically gain something for oneself. With someone who speaks lashon hara, it's worse in this case because the motive is entirely negative. The individual is knocking down another individual without gaining tangible benefit for oneself because there generally is no motive or reason. It is evil for its own sake (R. Joseph Telushkin, You Shall Be Holy, p. 341-342). 

It is not just the Torah that teaches how we blemish ourselves with improper speech, but the entirety of Jewish tradition. Here's but one example:

The destruction of the First Temple was caused by the sins of murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality, which are the three sins for which one is to martyr themselves (Sanhedrin 74a). That exile only took place for about seventy years before the Second Temple was constructed. The Second Temple was destroyed because of lashon hara (Yoma 9b, Rashi's commentary), and we still don't have a Third Temple. What does that tell you? The sin of lashon hara has so much gravitas that it outweighs murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality (Erchin 15b).

The Chofetz Chayim points out that by speaking lashon hara, one violates up to 31 mitzvahs. He went far as saying that a significant curtailing of lashon hara would herald Moshiach. If Jews were half as gung-ho about stopping lashon hara as they were in the observance of Shabbat or keeping kosher, we very well could bring about the Messianic Era.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Is Russia's Bark Worse Than Its Bite?: A Concise Look at Russia's International Clout

Between the recent hosting of the Olympics in Sochi and Russian troops lining up on the Crimean border, Russia has been making the news. Even so, there is still the question of how much of a role Russia plays in the international sphere. Granted, Russia is not the power that was competing with the United States for world hegemony after World War II. Russia has at least enough resilience and power to not be sucked into the European Union (EU) and to not have foreign influences sway domestic policy, but is that enough? This is not a question of whether Russia has any sway in the international community, but rather determining just how much.

One of the largest factors that makes Russia a world player is its nuclear arsenal. Russia has the capability of taking out the United States within the blink of an eye. If there is any hope of making sure there is no nuclear war or if to proliferate nuclear disarmament (e.g., START), Russia is going to be a key player.

In addition to the Chechen Wars and the Russo-Georgian War, Russia recently decided to militarily intervene in Ukraine because of the civil strife going on there. The European Union (EU) is not thrilled with Russia's actions, which is why they imposed sanctions on Russia. It's nice to see the EU take some action, but I have skepticism as to the impact that economic sanctions will have. Russia also has permanent veto power on the United Nations Security Council, which it threatened to use for sanctions on Syria. Russia is even trying to strengthen its rapport with Latin America to expand its military influence, as well as buddy up with China. Nevertheless, there have generally been less international conflicts since the end of the Cold War, so it should not be a surprise that Russia is not exerting as excessive of military might as one would expect.

These days, it's more about soft power than flexing one's muscles by starting proxy wars throughout the world. Russia is the world's largest producer of petroleum and the second largest producer of natural gas. Russia likes to use the carrot-and-stick method on former Soviet bloc members to get them to behave properly (Congressional Research Service, p. 41). The United States could export natural gas in retaliation to loosen Russia's grip, but that will depend on how much Obama wants to play hardball with Putin.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) points out in its recently published Article IV Consultation that Russia's economic growth is stagnating (p. 4-5), the cost of doing business there is high (p. 6), and Russia's financial sector is inefficient (p. 14). In spite of these problems, Russia is experiencing declining inflation, more flexible exchange rates, and an expansion of retail lending. Let's also not forget that Russia is a member of both the G-20 and G-8, as well as its recent ascension to the World Trade Organization. Russia might be dealing with economic issues, but it's still an economic powerhouse.

Although this is very condensed and by no means a complete analysis, what does this mean in the context of international affairs? Although Putin is attempting to revive the vestigial prestige of Mother Russia during the Cold War, odds are that he won't succeed. That ship has sailed, and the probability of Russia becoming a world superpower on par with America is next to nil. I think China would have a better chance of doing so. Nevertheless, Russia has enough militaristic and economic clout that Russia cannot be ignored. The fact that Russia can roll into Ukraine without any significant, adverse consequences should say something right there. Russia is a regional hegemony that exerts supraregional influence. Russia might not be the powerful nation it once was, but Russia's role as a sizable international player is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Pirkei Avot 3:13: Jewish Ethics > Jewish Rituals

Judaism has a reputation for being a religion of nuance and complexity. Looking at Jewish texts such as the Talmud or Shulchan Aruch, you can see nitpicking and attention to the smallest detail. That can help explain the adage of "two Jews, three opinions." With a religion that can be as complicated as Judaism, one would think that succinctly summarizing the essence of Judaism would be difficult. Some of the rabbis of yore have tried. Hillel summarized Judaism on one foot by saying "Do not do others as you would have done unto yourself. The rest is commentary (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)." Rabbi Akiva (Sanhedrin 38a) used the positive dictum of "love your neighbor as your love yourself (Leviticus 19:18)" as the guiding principle of Judaism. In a similar vein, this mishnah reaffirms this underlying message:

כל שרוח הבריות נוחה הימנו רוח המקום נוחה הימנו. 
וכל שאין רוח הבריות נוחה הימנו אין רוח המקום נוחה הימנו.

If the spirit of one's fellow is pleased with him, the spirit of the Omnipresent is pleased with him; but if the spirit of one's fellows is not pleased with him, the spirit of the Omnipresent is not pleased with him. -Pirke Avot 3:13

What R. Chanina ben Dosa was illustrating here is the importance of making an impact on the light of another. The ethical, interpersonal mitzvot are a directive from G-d to take care of His children. This would extend to all of His children, not just His Jewish ones, hence the usage of the word בריות. I also found it interesting to see what was not listed, and that is the more ritualistic aspects of Judaism, such as Shabbat or keeping kosher.

This is not to say that ritual does not have a role in Judaism. Rituals are a way in which Jews connect to G-d. Rituals are actions that define the particularistic aspect of Judaism. Rituals are supposed to invoke something in us and help us connect to G-d. However, as I've argued before, rituals are the means to a more spiritual life; rituals are not performed for their own sake. If rituals are meant for us to get closer to G-d, then much like parents who is most proud when their children get along with another, the best form of knowing that we're doing a good job is G-d being pleased about how His children treat their fellow human beings.

But if mitzvahs between G-d and men (בין אדם למקום), as well as mitzvahs between man and man (בין אדם לחברו), are both directives from G-d, why would the latter be the one that causes G-d to be pleased with us?

While both are directives of G-d, when an interpersonal mitzvah is violated, it's a double violation. With interpersonal mitzvahs, it's a proverbial smack in G-d's face [because a directive has been violated] and it harms another individual, and that individual is created in G-d's image. Interpersonal mitzvahs are the way that one can be both good in the eyes of G-d and man (Proverbs 3:4). Look at how atonement on Yom Kippur works (Chavot Yair). To atone for one's sins that are בין אדם למקום, one has to recite Kol Nidre. For sins that are בין אדם לחברו, however, G-d will only forgive those sins if the individual seeks forgiveness from the one that has been wronged. The way that we make teshuvah for our sins in Jewish practice should tell us plenty about which one is more important in G-d's eyes.

If we want to connect to G-d, one of the best ways to do so would be to do that which makes Him happy, and that is because a sound metric of a relationship's success, whether that relationship is with family, friends, or G-d, can be measured by the extent to which one is pleased with the other in the relationship. From what we have here, how we treat fellow beings is more important than ritual, and if G-d is pleased when we act ethically, that should give us pause as to how we should view our Judaism.    

Friday, March 21, 2014

Fred Phelps: A Man Who Ironically Helped the Gay Rights Movement

Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church fame recently passed away. He won't be a man who will be remembered as the civil rights activist who started a law firm to help take down the Jim Crow establishment. He will be remembered as the kooky, hate-mongering, anti-gay pastor who indignantly protested military funerals and other locations. It's safe to say that the vast majority of people are not going to miss him, myself included.

As nice as it is to see one less bigot on this planet, he still did some good, even if it wasn't his intention. For one, his picketing tested the limits of the First Amendment (Snyder v. Phelps), which shows just how much free speech is valued in this country. What is more interesting is how he affected the gay rights movement.

Phelps thought that the 9-11 attacks, the roadside bombings during the Iraq War, and Hurricane Katrina, amongst other tragedies, were G-d's way of punishing America of being so tolerant of the LGBT community. I'll set aside the fact that this country has a while to go before reaching LGBT equality, but even so, how does a man who virulently hates homosexuals become such a help to the gay rights movement?

Phelps wanted Americans to have absolutely no respect for LGBT rights, but the more he picketed, the more supportive people became of same-sex marriage. This is not to say that Fred Phelps was the single most important factor in the progression of LGBT rights because there were other factors that played a significantly larger role. Nevertheless, Phelps became the embodiment of all that is anti-gay. He made the people over at the National Organization for Marriage and the Family Research Council look like moderates. This was more than showing the dangers of religious fundamentalism. Phelps showed Americans just how much hate one has to harbor in order to be anti-gay. Being anti-gay and/or against gay marriage went from being commonplace to an opinion of hate and bigotry. Not only did he fail at his goal of spreading his anti-gay message across the country, but he helped propel the gay rights movement forward while putting a good number of Christians on the defensive about this issue. His legacy of hate helped more and more churchgoers become loving and accepting of their gay co-religionists. Phelps inadvertently framed the issue not in terms of "traditional marriage versus marriage equality," but in terms of "hatred versus acceptance." Phelps didn't expect acceptance to defeat hatred, but his hatred was such a turn-off that people realized the ugly side of being anti-gay.

As tempting as it would be to judge Phelps, I will leave that up to G-d. Phelps is no longer with us, and the fact that he failed in his fear-mongering is all the more pronounced by the progress made by the gay rights movement. Phelps should slip into obscurity and become a mere footnote in history. At this point, I will simply delight in the fact that people are becoming more and more accepting of LGBT individuals and realize that everyone, gay or straight, deserves the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Parsha Shemini: There's Something Fishy Going On

Thinking up a blog entry for this week's Torah portion wasn't as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, but I was able to come up with this. I was reading this week's Torah portion and was looking at the part about kosher animals. I came across the section on fish (Leviticus 11:9-12), and I started pondering as to why fish required fins and scales to be kosher. Since every fish with scales has fins (Talmud, Niddah 51b), why say סנפיר וקשקשת ("fins and scales")? Isn't that a bit redundant? And what is about fins and scales that G-d wants us to notice or recognize?

The Gerre Rebbe points out that by mentioning both fins and scales, one can fulfill two divine directives while eating fish, which further honors the Torah. Although it makes for a nice d'var, let's think of fins and scales in terms of their functionality and how that can be interpreted.

So here's what I came up with:

Scales protect fish from harm. Much like a fish's durability, G-d wants us to develop a sense of resilience and adaptability to one's surroundings when life seems dark or decides to throw you a curve ball. Life is not meant to be all sunshine and good times. When life knocks us down, He wants us to get up. One of the reasons that the Jewish people still exists is because of resilience. As King Solomon once said, "for a righteous man falls seven times and gets up again (Proverbs 24:16)."

This is the moment where I point out that the fins are not a redundancy at all. Why? Because to analogize us to the fish, when we decide to get back up, the fins are there to propel us forward. Fins are the mechanism that allow fish to swim and actualize their potential.  Much like fish, G-d wants us to explore the depths of the ocean and actualize our potential. He wants us to marvel at the wonders around us and appreciate what we have. 

We are what we eat. G-d wants us to learn something from this precept, and that is to be able to live our lives to the fullest, even when the turbulence of the ocean knocks us around more than a few times.

Monday, March 17, 2014

How Much Proof Does One Need to Lower the Drinking Age?

Yesterday was the Jewish holiday of Purim, and today is St. Patrick's Day. Two holidays that entail a good amount of drinking is certainly nothing to whine about. These holidays got me thinking: should we lower the drinking age? Prior to the federal government threatening to yank federal highway funding to the states if they didn't raise the drinking age to 21, plenty of states had a lower minimum legal drinking age (MLDA).

I found one study showing that American MLDA laws do not do much to impact teen drinking (Miron and Tetelbaum, 2007), one on the lack of impact on college students (Hughes and Dodder, 1992), and a meta-study showing that an increased MLDA does not affect suicide, homicide, or vandalism rates (Vagenaar and Toomey, 2002). I also found that in general terms, per-mile traffic fatalities were already decreasing prior to the increase of the MLDA in 1984 (see below), which would diminish an argument of causation. If I had to take a shot as to what caused the prior decrease, I would argue such factors as seat belt laws, zero-tolerance laws, greater public awareness, air bag implementation, and other technological developments played a larger role. More specifically to the 18-20 year old age demographic, per traffic-mile fatality rates were already decreasing prior to raising the MLDA to 21.

However, a recent meta-study (De Jong and Blanchette, 2014) that is seemingly thorough makes me wonder whether we should keep the MLDA at 21. The meta-study points out that an MLDA of 21 has saved an approximate 900 individuals per annum. Let's assume that De Jong and Blanchette are correct in saying that there is a small, negative effect (as opposed to a negligible or non-existent one). Much like I argued with trans fats, this is a matter of dealing with certain tradeoffs.

One tradeoff is the health benefits of alcohol. The neo-prohibitionists over at Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) are not going to want to admit this, but unlike many of the illicit drugs out there, alcohol can be good for you when drunk in moderation. This is a point that cannot be emphasized enough. Our European counterparts learn to drink alcohol in a safe environment, usually as part of a meal, and are more prone to learn to drink alcohol with moderation and restraint. The typical American is exposed to alcohol at a high school party or at college, both of which are more underground, create a taboo for young adults entering college or the workforce (e.g., reactance theory), and help to perpetuate the binge culture. Much like responsible eating, sex, or other life choices, parents should teach their children the idea of responsible drinking, which is what parents in other countries do.

The other tradeoff is the freedom of being able to make choices, much like any other adult. Eighteen-year-olds are trusted to vote, buy cigarettes, get married, and risk their lives by serving in the military, but why doesn't the recognition of adulthood encompass alcohol consumption? We legally treat eighteen-year-olds like adults in just about every facet, except this one. This inconsistency, not to mention the relatively large gap between legal adulthood and the MLDA, develops similar disrespect for the law that Prohibition did. Not to say that nobody ever binge drank prior to, but should it be a surprise that a culture of binge drinking has become a staple of American culture since the enactment of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 (Title 23, §158)? Even with this law enacted, about half of Americans age 18-20 still drink at least once a month (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Figure 3.1).

I would argue for that the states should not have to kowtow to the federal government lest they lose federal highway funds. States should be able to determine the MLDA by analyzing their own unique demographics, much like Morris Chafetz thought. Conversely, I think the American political atmosphere can make us prone to thinking in terms of the "either legalize at 18 or 21" dichotomy, which means that more middle-ground solutions are not typically considered. I was talking with a friend and colleague prior to writing this blog entry, and he provided me with a policy alternative. Since we have different political ideologies, he knows it's not easy to convince me in a polemic context, but he managed to do so last evening. His idea? Lower the drinking age to 19. Why have an MLDA of 19?

I found this policy alternative to be appealing on a theoretical level. At the age of 18, there would still be high schoolers who legally had access to alcohol. The 18-year-olds would be able to provide younger high school students with alcohol. This policy alternative would be beneficial for the college level because at age 19, freshmen would only have to wait a few months, as opposed to a couple years. This smaller time gap would bring the drinking of those of the age of 19-20 to more regulated and supervised locales. This alternative would address both the binge drinking at the collegiate level and what it legally means to be an adult.

Unless there is a change in public opinion that leads to outcry, this is more of a exercise in public policy theory than anything else. In the meantime, one can only hope there is an ailment to this weak policy.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Believe It or Not, I Found Nine Features I Like About Islam

In the Western world, Islam takes a lot of flak. Some of it stems from ignorance, anti-immigrant sentiments, Islam's history with Christianity, fear of the unknown, post-9/11 moral indignation, or downright racism. Conversely, as I have pointed out before, it is not as if Islam were blameless. For one, Islamic law (شريعة) subjugates women and monotheistic non-Muslims (particularly Jews) to second-class status. Homosexuality and apostasy are punishable by death. There are also other perturbing aspects of Islam and how it is practiced, including domestic violence, slavery in certain parts of Africa, a Golden Rule that only seems to apply to Muslims (Sura 2:1043:1314:13-14, 13645:32-35), the modern-day manifestation of terroristic jihad (جهاد) that goes well beyond an internal struggle, not to mention the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in places such as Europe. Whatever attempts that more religiously liberal Muslims make to harmonize their religion with the Western world are met with great opposition, delegitimization, Wahabi petrodollars, and coercive threats of violence and death. Until reforms can be made in the Islamic world, the fundamentalists who read the Qu'ran (القرآن) in the literal, fundamental sense are the mainstream. For anyone, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who is interested in having interfaith dialogue or an intellectually honest debate, one cannot simply brush these aforementioned facts under the rug or lob the pejorative term "Islamophobe" at someone simply for mentioning these facts. They would need to be addressed while having a holistic discussion on Islam because much like any other religion, the way Islam is practiced is not without its negative features.

Furthermore, as a Jew, it can be more difficult to appreciate the positive aspects of Islam that exist because the primary form of anti-Semitism that globally exists right now is Islamic in nature. Even so, let's use the great Jewish Torah scholar and philosopher, Maimonides, as an example of how to approach the topic. Maimonides was born in twelfth century Spain, during which he lived with a second-class dhimmi (ذمي) status. Once the Almohads conquered the area, Maimonides was forced to flee Spain. He was subsequently forced into conversion to Islam, but that conversion was later ruled as invalid because it was in violation of the precept in شريعة that prohibits forced conversions. In spite of all the Islamic oppression he faced, Maimonides was still able to say nice things about Islam, such as Islam is not idolatry and that Muslims will play an important role in engendering the Messianic era. It is in that spirit in which I have created this list of things I like about Islam:
  1. Islam has a belief in one, Infinite G-d. The first of the Five Pillars of Islam contains the idea that G-d is Infinite Oneness. That means that unlike with my Christian friends, I don't have to refute the idea of a triune deity and explain why 1+1+1≠1. This belief would explain why Jewish law does not view Islam as idolatry.  
  2. Giving alms. Much like with צדקה in Judaism, Zakat (زكاة), another one of the Pillars of Islam, is built around the idea of helping the less fortunate with their economic hardships. With צדקה, one gives ten percent of their income. What is interesting about زكاة is that although one is obligated to give 2.5 percent, that 2.5 percent comes from one's assets, not just one's income.     
  3. Hospitality. Much like other Middle Eastern cultures (including that in Judaism), Islam has high regard for hospitality and taking care of guests. 
  4. Muharram (المهرّم). This is the first month on the Islamic calendar. During the tenth day of this month, Muslims are supposed to fast to commemorate the victory of Moses and the Jewish people over the Pharaoh. Even though some religions view fasting in a negative light, Islam views it as a positive spiritual practice
  5. Personal responsibility. Islam does not believe in vicarious atonement or being absolved from the consequences of one's actions. Much like in Judaism, Islam holds the belief that one is held accountable for one's thoughts, words, and deeds (Sura 99:6-8).
  6. Lack of racism. Whether there are certain practitioners of Islam that are racist is one thing. The religion itself, however, is a different story. Say what you want about other forms of discrimination that exist in Islam; the Islamic religion is against racism (Sura 49:13).
  7. Islamic Golden Age. While Christians were in cultural and civil stagnation during the Dark Ages (they did call them the Dark Ages for a reason), the Muslims were the pinnacle of civilization. Amongst the Islamic achievements during this time period were the creation of algebra and trigonometry, significant advances in astronomy and optics, and the preservation of the works of Greek philosophers that would have otherwise vanished.
  8. Conversion process. In Judaism, you're turned away three times before you even begin with the conversion process. Even after that, the stringency that has been applied to the Jewish conversion process has taken a life of its own, and is well beyond the halachic minimum. This is not a problem in Islam, probably because it is a proselytizing religion. Once a prospective convert recites the declaration of faith (الشهادة), that individual is considered to be a Muslim.  
  9. Arabic is its liturgical language. This feature is not directly related to the religion, but is rather a part of Islamic culture. I took some Arabic courses during my graduate school studies. The variety of phonemes, the three-letter roots in Arabic words, the writing style and calligraphy all make Arabic an aesthetically pleasing and linguistically intriguing language. 
Postscript: To be honest, I found writing this blog entry to be a challenge. Islam is a religion that can be and has been interpreted as hostile towards Jews and Judaism, which is all the more disconcerting considering how that has been put into practice throughout Islam's existence. When that level of animus is launched at you simply for existing, it's difficult to appreciate any of the positive aspects of Islam. However, a previous classmate of mine inspired me to transcend it, hence the impetus of this blog entry. Even though I'm not exactly going to hold my breath on this, I would hope that as time progresses, the Islamic community can tackle its internal challenges so that I can make this list longer in the future.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Why Are So Many Moroccans Immigrating to Spain?: A Brief Look at the Moroccan Economy

Last week, the Spanish government was put on high alert because thousands of Moroccans are looking to immigrate to Spain. I was perplexed at this phenomenon because in spite of being one of the top twenty economies in the world, Spain's economy isn't doing all that great, especially when one considers that Spain's current unemployment rate is 26 percent. If Spain's labor market isn't flattering, what is attracting Moroccans to moving to Spain?

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently published a report on the Moroccan economy that can provide further insight to that question. A part of me does not understand how things would have gotten bad enough where there would be a sizable immigration. As of last October, the new government coalition was established, which meant less deadlock and more enactment of laws. There is also a decline of the federal deficit, a twenty percent growth in the agriculture sector, there was GDP growth by four percent, and inflation was low. Morocco was also able to weather the volatility of the Arab Spring. That sounds like progress and resilience to me. So what's missing from the picture?

For one, taxation in Morocco is high, especially in terms of percent of GDP. Taxation has been 24 percent of the GDP for the past three years, which is a regional high. What's more is that there is a narrow tax base, which makes it more difficult for proprietors to make profit and expand their business. It's also more difficult to improve on business practices when lines of credit are constrained as much as they are in Morocco. These factors are compounded by the fact that doing business in Morocco is tough. In spite of the noticable strides Morocco has made in the World Bank's Doing Business Index in the past few years, it is still difficult to maintain protection of property and investment in Morocco. All of these negative facets of Morocco's economy are reflected in Morocco's unemployment rate. Although Morocco's unemployment rate is lower than that of Spain, it has been stagnant for the past few years. As is brought up both in the IMF report (p. 11) and Freedom House, the fact that the Moroccan economy reacts to exogenous shocks caused by European markets shows market volatility in Morocco. Even with the improvements in the Moroccan economy and stagnation of the Spanish economy, Spain's perceived grandeur and close geographical proximity make it a prime choice for those looking to immigrate.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Why the Official Unemployment Rate Doesn't Work

Today is the day that the official unemployment rate statistics are released. Both those on the Left and the Right attempt to make heads or tails of the numbers in terms of figuring out the overall state of the economy. Much like with the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), I have to ask myself whether it's all that it is cracked up to be.

The official unemployment rate calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), also known as U-3 unemployment, captures those who have been without work and have been looking for at least four weeks. The BLS measurements for unemployment are as follows:

  • U-1: Persons unemployed 15 weeks or longer, as a percent of the civilian labor force
  • U-2: Job losers and persons who completed temporary jobs, as a percent of the civilian labor force
  • U-3: Total unemployed, as a percent of the civilian labor force
  • U-4: Total unemployed plus discouraged workers, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus discouraged workers
  • U-5: Total unemployed, plus discouraged workers, plus all other persons marginally attached to the labor force, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force
  • U-6: Total unemployed, plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all persons marginally attached to the the labor force

Looking at the other definitions that the BLS calculates, it perplexes me as to why they opt for U-3 as the official measurement. Perhaps it is because U-3 unemployment portrays a rosy enough picture while still conveying some information. The issue I have with U-3 unemployment is that it understates the extent of unemployment. For instance, why does the BLS not opt to use U-4 as the official rate? The addition of the amount of discouraged workers better signal the extent of labor market instability.

If we want to play semantics, the U-6 indicator is technically an underemployment measurement. I'm not a fan of people using the U-6 indicator in attempts to perpetuate the myth of part-time America. Nevertheless, the U-6 unemployment rate depicts a more accurate picture of the strength of the labor market than the U-3 unemployment rate, much like the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate help us do.

Even if we were to use U-6 rate, there are still two issues with using the national unemployment rate: 1) the rates require substantial estimation and readjustments, and 2) there is no such thing as a national unemployment rate because the rates vary so much from state to state.

So the next time you see the "unofficial unemployment rate" decrease, don't think to yourself "Look at that, the economy is getting better." Instead, think to yourself, "Big whoop-de-doo! Tell me when you have actual news to report."

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Are the Haredim Right to Be Protesting Compulsory Military Service?

This past Sunday, thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel were protesting in Jerusalem about members of their community being required to be drafted in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, there has been an exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jews serving in the military so they can pursue their religious studies. Many of these ultra-Orthodox Jews receive welfare checks from the Israeli government so that they can continue with their religious studies. Apparently, the rest of Israeli society is getting fed up with this special treatment, and I hardly can blame them. I would like to divide the remainder of this blog entry into two sections: 1) a brief look behind the secular argument behind compulsory military service, and 2) dispelling the notion that "G-d wants us to study Torah all day," and 3) a conclusion around the topic of economics.

I. National Military Service
As a libertarian, it should be no surprise that I shudder at the thought of the government forcing individuals to compulsively serve in the military. In a free society, if a threat is existential enough and the fervor of patriotism is strong enough, there should be no need to conscript anyone because citizens will want to serve their country. That is why it seemed so paradoxical for the United States fighting for freedom in WWII while conscripting soldiers. This, of course, is a deontological argument against conscription. Amongst other things, a society is a reflection of its values, culture, political climate, and the external and internal threats it faces. It would be preferable if we can co-exist my trading freely with one another instead of going to war. Not all countries have the luxury of that option, and given its surrounding hostile countries, Israel is one of those countries. Israel has a cold peace with Egypt, which is contingent upon Egypt's stability. Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey, amongst other countries, maintain their animus and hostility towards the Jewish state. Until neighboring countries can get along with Israel, the Israeli government will continue to maintain its high demand of soldiers via conscription. It's nowhere ideal, but given the circumstances, it's the best the Israeli government can do.

II. Judaism and Torah Study
According to Pirke Avot (1:2), the Torah is one of the three pillars upon which the world stands. This is not to diminish the importance of Torah or Torah study, but to remind ourselves that Torah study is to be combined with an occupation (דרך ארץ) because without both, one is prone to sin (P.A. 2:2). The great Sages realized this point, which is why so many of the famous Torah scholars had jobs in addition to their scholarly work so they can maintain their economic self-sufficiency. Hillel was a woodcutter. Maimonides and Nachmanides were physicians. Rashi owned a vineyard. The Rashbam tended livestock and the Ramchal was a diamond cutter. Historically speaking, the few who studied Torah all the time were well-to-do families who had the means to finance that lifestyle. It was not a lifestyle meant for the masses. Rabbi Shimon taught that the essential thing is not study, but deed (P.A. 1:17). Torah study is important because we need a general understanding of the parameters of Jewish law. However, we also need to act on it and do as many mitzvahs and good deeds as possible, which means getting your nose out of your books to perform those deeds. There needs to be a balance between study and deeds, as well as one between study and work.

III. Economics and Conclusion
There is also a question of economics to consider. In economic terms, the Haredim and the Israeli government have saturated the labor market with an artificially high demand of Torah scholars. As previously mentioned, not everyone is meant to be a Torah scholar by profession, and not everyone needs to be a Torah scholar. Even if some were meant to be, some of the greatest rabbis supplemented their Torah study with another occupation. If the ultra-Orthodox population is growing at a faster rate than the rest of Israel, shouldn't we question whether Israel can handle a demographic that is so heavily dependent on the government's welfare, especially when they are not providing anything of significant economic worth in return? Also, doesn't the Grace After Meals (ברכת המזון) say that one should not be dependent on the gifts of man? Instead of being scornful for the "decadent, secular Israeli government," shouldn't these individuals be thankful for the sustenance to be able to sit around and study Torah all day without making at least proportional contributions to the Israeli economy? This is not a self-sustaining model, and the fact that the ultra-Orthodox have been able to get away with mooching off the Israeli government for over sixty years is astounding. It's a shandeh that their self-righteousness would sap an economy and a nation of greater potential. If the ultra-Orthodox want to perpetuate poverty, fine, but they should not do it on the state's dime (or in this case, shekel). Considering "Jewish values," why would someone want to live a lifestyle that intentionally puts them in a state of poverty? Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 31:14) states that if you put fifty plagues on one side and poverty on the other, poverty outweighs them all. There is a reason why Jewish law puts a cap on giving tzedakah: to make sure one in not in such dire straits to receive tzedakah themselves. Judaism does not believe in a vow of poverty, and to perpetuate this inaccuracy in G-d's name is the real audacity.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago when analyzing Israel's economy, integrating the Haredim into the greater society is a challenge to economic progress. At the very least, if the Israeli government is going to maintain conscription, the ultra-Orthodox should not get a pass. If we want to get Haredim integrated into society, the Israeli government should go beyond conscription for these individuals. The Israeli government should stop treating the Haredim like they're G-d's gift to the world and treat them just like any other Israeli citizen instead of coddling them with welfare and conscription exemptions. Only then will they be contributing members to society.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Not-So-Complex Argument Against Rent Control

No one likes having to pay more for housing than necessary. For a vast majority of people, housing is the single largest expense in a personal budget. With regards to apartments, it is even worse when landlords exploit the system by overcharging tenants. To deal with the "money-grubbing landlords" and to provide people with affordable and accessible housing, some think the solution is for the government to step in with rent control. For proponents, it's supposed to solve information asymmetry, protect citizens from absurd rent increases, and promote community stability.

However, a forthcoming study in the Journal of Political Economy, entitled Housing Market Spillovers: Evidence from the End of Rent Control in Cambridge Massachusetts (Autor et al, 2013), tells a different story. The authors use Cambridge, Massachusetts as a case study to show that once rent control was removed back in 1995, the property value between 1995 and 2003 increased by well over a billion dollars. This is not the only case in which rent control has been disastrous, whether you look at San FranciscoNew York City (also see here), or Cambridge (also see here). Countries such as France, Vietnam, and the United Kingdom had to eliminate their rent control policies because they were that deleterious. Economists have a virtual consensus that rent control is a bad idea. Socialist economist Assar Lindbeck was known for saying "In many cases, rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city, except for bombing." Paul Krugman is even on board. What is it about rent control that ends up going so awry?

Rent control is like any other government-imposed price ceiling in that it mandates a maximum price on how much a landlord can charge a tenant for rent. What happens when the government imposes this price ceiling?

The economic effects of the price ceiling are numerous and unintended. The first is the quantity demanded is greater than the quantity supplied (Qd-Qs >0), which is to say that rent control causes a shortage of housing. The shortages in the controlled sector cause the demand to spilled over into the uncontrolled sector. That is why the second effect is that although prices are depressed in the controlled sector, they rise substantially in the uncontrolled sector, which would explain why a place such as New York City has such high rental costs. The third is because of the shortage, the landlords are disincentivized to upkeep the apartments under rent control (given the difficulty to make profit due to depressed prices and the long queue created to make people desperate to acquire the rent-controlled housing, that makes sense), and as a result, the apartments become run-down. This also discourages incentive to build new, improved housing for everyone but the super rich. Another unintended consequence is that the substitution effect takes place, i.e., more people want to buy houses than rent (Fetter, 2013). Let's not forget the deadweight loss created as a result (see below).

Rent control is like any other price control: you can't control the unintended consequences of rent control. Rent control hurts the very people it intends to help. If you want to protect both the tenant and the landlord, as well as create across-the-board affordable renting (see World Bank policy research paper here), remove rent control in the cities that still enact it and watch their housing markets proliferate.

1-9-2018 Addendum: The National Bureau of Economic Research just released an interesting paper on rent control in San Francisco. Its findings? Rent control limited the housing supply by 15 percent, as well as increase rent by 5 percent.